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Joint Attention in Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder

November 22, 2023

“Why can’t I play with my brother like other kids my age play with their siblings?” Coming from my older son, Jeremy, that question cut like a knife. The fact is Joey struggles with joint attention.

He can only sometimes focus on the same things as everyone else. For joint attention to work with Joey, we have to work with what interests him rather than try to spark his interest in something that we think he may like.

Still, these skills can be essential for children with autism spectrum disorder. It can assist in cognitive development and improve social communication skills. In the end, joint attention skills can go a long way to helping a child with autism spectrum disorder grow and bond with other children.

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What Is Joint Attention?

Joint attention is precisely what it sounds like — two people with a shared focus on the same thing. It can be an object, an action, or a behavior.

Both people involved must be able to shift attention together. These skills aren’t always easy to develop, and that can be doubly true if one of the people involved is on the autism spectrum.

It must be noted that there are two ways for a parent and child to experience this kind of attention:

  • Initiating joint attention
  • Responding to joint attention

However, recognizing the situation can help the child develop joint attention and communication skills.

Initiating Joint Attention

This is when the child establishes the shared attention activity. This may be when a child points to or looks at an object.

Initiating joint attention allows the parent to understand the child’s wants or needs and work with them. This often occurs when a child asks for a snack but can’t vocalize their wants.

Joey does this by dragging his mother or me to the snack cabinet. He will climb up on the counter and point to the lock. We have to make sure he doesn’t eat everything inside it. He is initiating joint attention with his strongest desire: food.

Joint Attention in Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder

Children with autism may also initiate it to get their favorite television program or toy. Sometimes, they may want you to play with them or just snuggle them. Still, they know what they want and want you to share the focus. Even if just for a moment.

Responding To Joint Attention

In this instance, the parent tries to initiate joint attention, and the child responds to the parent’s attempts.

Responding to it may be as simple as coming to the dinner table when a parent demonstrates the food is ready in a way a child can understand. Many autistic children will find responding to shared attention easier than initiating it.

We’ve learned this is especially true for Joey. He will often respond wherever we are trying to get him to focus. Sometimes, this means coming to the table for a snack. Other times, it may be sitting on the couch and watching one of his favorite shows to get him to calm down.

Our best efforts have come from him responding to joint attention rather than trying to initiate it.

The National Institutes of Health and the National Library of Medicine in the United States have found that joint attention skills play a pivotal role in the development of children with autism. A lack of these skills is often an early indicator of autism and helps determine if early intervention is needed.

Shared attention has been shown to improve language development and social skills, especially in imitation. It can also improve eye contact, which may be something children with autism avoid.


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Can Joint Attention Be Improved?

A child’s joint attention can certainly be improved. It just takes a parent who doesn’t give up. There are several tips to help develop these skills, including modeling, imitation, and play.

  • Modeling

Modeling is an important part of responding to joint attention. A parent may model a behavior or activity for their child. This can help establish shared attention, especially when the parent helps their child point to an object.

  • Imitation

Imitation also goes a long way in building joint attention skills for your child. This could be as simple as cooing after your child’s coos or following through with a similar activity like throwing a ball.

On top of developing these skills, this can also lead to bonding and an improved relationship with your child.

  • Play

Play is an incredibly easy way to help develop these kinds of skills because almost every parent is already playing with their little one. This form of play will help the child’s joint attention by building the bond between parent and child.

Joint Attention in Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder

This can be as simple as a piggyback ride or initiating a game of chase if your child likes to run. As your child recognizes these activities as fun, they are more likely to engage in shared attention with you.

Summary

Many children on the autism spectrum will struggle with shared attention, but parents and siblings can take action to help the child develop these skills. There are many ways to focus on joint attention, but in the end, it can improve bonds for the entire family.

The child could see improved language development, communication, social, and comprehension. Just keep your focus and continue working with your child.

It’s been a long journey for my family, and it might be a long journey for yours, but when you can share that joint attention with your child, it’s all worth it.

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FAQs

Q: What is an example of joint attention in children with autism?

A: In children with autism, an example of joint attention might be when a child looks at an object, like a toy, and then looks at their caregiver to share the experience, seeking shared engagement. This behavior is a key aspect of social communication development.

Q: Can joint attention difficulties improve with intervention?

A: Early intervention and targeted therapies, such as applied behavior analysis (ABA) and social skills training, can be beneficial in improving joint attention skills in individuals with autism.

Q: Why do autistic children struggle with joint attention?

A: Autistic children find it hard to share attention with others because of challenges in social communication and difficulty coordinating attention between people and objects. Additionally, impaired social cues and a preference for repetitive behaviors can make it challenging for them to engage in shared focus.

Q: What are the signs of joint attention?

A: Joint attention signs include a child following another person’s gaze or pointing and sharing attention to an object or event. It involves coordinating attention between oneself, others, and the surrounding environment.

Q: How does joint attention develop language?

A: Joint attention is a foundation for children to develop communication skills. When children and their caregivers focus on the same thing and the children hear words related to that shared focus, it creates an optimal environment for learning new words.

References:

Why is joint attention a pivotal skill in autism?
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1693124/

Attention, Joint Attention, and Social Cognition
https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1467-8721.2007.00518.x

Joint Attention in Children With Autism: Theory and Intervention
https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/10883576040190010301

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